Translated by Geoffrey Chew, Introduction by Peter Zusi

Jantar Publishing. 204 pages. Ł15. ISBN 978-0-9934467-1-9


Karel Hynek Mácha. Translated and with an introduction by Geoffrey Chew

Jantar Publishing. 138 pages. Ł12. ISBN 978-0-9934467-6-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’m venturing into unknown territory by writing about what was being published in Prague in the 1890s and early 1900s. And I doubt that there are all that many readers in Britain who can claim an acquaintance with Czech literature generally, beyond Kafka, Jaroslav Hašek, Bohumil Hrabel, and later, Josef Švorecký, Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, and Ivan Klíma. The latter quartet perhaps gained a certain prominence during the Cold War years because they represented, in one way or another, elements of the dissident literature emanating from the Iron Curtain countries.

But every country has its traditions, and although its literature may only throw up a handful of major writers, there are always plenty of others who contributed to its variety and development. To be given an opportunity to see some of their work in translation, especially that of what might be thought of as minor writers, is always valuable and interesting.

I suppose it’s inevitable that, coming across the term, fin-de-sičcle, one tends to think of Huysmans and A Rebours, or of Oscar Wilde and the fragile English poets like Ernest Dowson and Lionel Johnson. But if we use fin-de-sičcle simply to designate a period rather than a mood, a style, or a particular approach to creativity, then it’s obvious that a variety of writing will have been produced during the years concerned. Not every author wanted to view the world as in decline, or subject to a myth of decadence, with madness and self-indulgence in drugs and other forms of escapism dominating. It’s perhaps true that writers focusing on such subjects often tend to be remembered, and sometimes even held up as typical of a time.

If this is the case, Arthur Briesky’s “Mors Syphilitica” might be an example to use to demonstrate how a subject can be viewed as signifying an aspect of a fin-de-siécle atmosphere. In it Death visits a syphilitic young man – the sores on his face and his attempts to cover them with powder are vividly described – and promises to spare him if he refrains from any further sexual activity. They go out, into the city, with Death occasionally pausing to gather someone to his fold – “an old woman huddled in a shabby coat”, and an old man who has had a stroke – and eventually arrive at a wild party where the young man can’t resist kissing a woman he meets and lusts after. With this act he seals his fate, and, in despair, commits suicide. With syphilis having an almost-plague like impact in many European cities in the nineteenth century (think of poetry, prose and art coming from London, Vienna, Paris - Briesky’s story takes its lead from an illustration by Felicien Rops) we are in a society that seemed doomed to fall because of its decadence.

A plague of the kind that swept Europe in earlier times is at the centre of Miloš Marten’s “Courtigiana” (“The Courtesan”), in which a woman, famed for her beauty, takes revenge on men who have used and abused her. The city of Florence is in the grip of the plague and the rich have locked themselves in their castles and palaces in an attempt to escape the infection, while the poor, without any effective means of protection or medication, die slowly and horribly. There are references to the supposed causes of the plague, such as comets, magic spells, and more. I was reminded of the line, “Brightness falls from the air”, in Thomas Nashe’s 1593 poem, “In Time of Pestilence”.

The courtesan is invited to a party being held so that the people present can, they hope, defy death. She declines at first, but then, knowing that she herself has been infected, decides to attend so that she can spread the disease among the people she despises. It could be that this story reveals some of the fear of women that was a hallmark of fin-de-sičcle art and literature. Bram Dijkstra’a Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Sičcle Culture (Oxford University Press, 1986) is a detailed study of the subject. The courtesan in Marten’s story may have good reasons for what she does, but the fact that she is prepared to disperse the plague among both men and women, some of whom she probably doesn’t know, points to a kind of perversity in her thinking.

And what is one to make of Donna Flavia, a cold but beautiful female sculptress in Julius Zeyer’s “Inultus: A Prague Legend”, who persuades a young man to model for her as she attempts to re-create the look on Christ’s face as he was crucified: “Will you be the model for my King of the Jews in the hour of his death?”. This requires the man to be suspended on a cross and leads to her really crucifying him and placing a crown of thorns on his head, then thrusting a dagger into his side. He dies, and she initially hides the body, but eventually regrets what she’s done, and kills herself.

As I said earlier, fin-de-sičcle, if applied loosely to a period, can encompass other kinds of writing outside those described above. Božena Benešová’s “In the Twilight” is a fairly straightforward account of how a woman is disillusioned when the man she had assumed would propose to her after his wife dies, announces that he is going to marry his housekeeper. It has an element of irony in that the man, in his turn, has assumed that the woman will understand why the housekeeper is his choice   and that they can still meet and be friends. She is naturally less than enthusiastic about the idea. The situation is recognisable and told in a way that extends sympathy to the woman.

František Gellner’s “My Travelling Companion” is a light-hearted tale of the narrator bring burdened with an unwelcome companion as he sets out to visit Bavaria. The uninvited companion can’t help involving them both in embarrassing situations as he proceeds to upset other people, destroy things accidentally, and generally make a nuisance of himself. He is like the proverbial bull in a china shop. It’s the kind of anecdotal narrative once used to fill up spaces in newspapers, not requiring a great deal of time or attention to skim through it. But it’s entertaining.

There is also the brilliant “The Empty Chair: An Analysis of an Unwritten Tale” by Richard Weiner. With its discursive style, it purports to be “a pragmatic account of the non-existence of a literary work”.  Instigated by a fragment of overheard conversation, in which one man was insisting that another should visit him, it quickly moves into discussions about readers, the difference between “sensory and psychotic horror”, reflections on ‘Visite’,  a poem by Charles Vildrac,  and a variety of other topics which have a bearing on why the story was never written.

There is an aside about how one of the writer’s other pieces was inspired by a painting by František Kupka. And along the way, there is a long anecdote about how the narrator met a friend in the street, invited him home to have some tea, asked him to pop down to a local shop to get something to eat, and waited in vain for the friend to return. Edgar Allan Poe comes to mind (“The Man in the Crowd”) when reading this story. The narrator says that the incident occurred when he was living in Paris in 1914, and that he did meet his friend again, but no mention was made of what had happened on the previous occasion, though the friend surprised him by saying, “I really must come and visit you sometime”.

There are several other pieces in And My Head Exploded which can be read with pleasure, and there is an informative introduction and short notes on the various authors. 

Gypsy by Karel Hynek Mácha moves further back in the nineteenth century (it was originally published in 1835)  and takes the reader into a world of ruined castles, decadent aristocrats, gypsies, Jews, superstitious peasants, thunder, lightning, a madwoman, and all the other Gothic characteristics of the Romantic movement. Two wandering gypsies arrive in a small village and, in due course, proceed to upset the applecart. Things and people are not as they seem, and revelations about who the gypsies really are, and how they’ve found their way to the village, eventually tumble off the page. It’s all very melodramatic, though somewhat lightened by Bárta, a heavy-drinking elderly veteran of the Napoleonic Wars who keeps up a running commentary on his supposed exploits, most of which are so exaggerated that they can’t possibly be taken seriously. 

There is a long, scholarly introduction to Gypsy by Geoffrey Chew which places it in context and points to its relevance to Czech history and folklore. He is informative on the subject of Gypsies, and their origins, and how they were, at one time, believed in Western culture to have come from the Czech province of Bohemia, hence the French applying the term Bohemians to students in Paris who dressed unconventionally, like Gypsies. And he suggests there was something of a bond between Gypsies and Jews due to both groups being outsiders, and having no fixed place in the wider society 

There are references to the novel’s relationship to Romantic writers outside Czechoslovakia, such as Byron and Sir Walter Scott. It’s possible to read Gypsy as a simple, routine Gothic novel, with all its coincidences and confusions, but having it analysed gives it a resonance that enables it to take on added meanings. Chew points to a passage where the young Jew, somewhat unhinged mentally by a combination of circumstances, pours out a curious stream of consciousness ramblings. It appears to have had a lasting influence, in that it “served as a model for the ‘automatic’ writing of the avant-garde Czech ‘Poetists’ before World War Two”. Now what do we know about them?